Power struggle racks Nuclear Regulatory Commission

photo The Unit 1 turbines sit idle at the Bellefonte nuclear power plant in Hollywood, Ala.

As TVA scrambles to repair recent safety concerns, Nuclear Regulatory Commission records show that Bellefonte's construction license didn't have full NRC support when the federal regulator's commission members approved the 37-year-old lapsed license several months ago.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, then just one of the commissioners, wrote: "There is an inherent danger in ignoring this obvious fact. Licenses exist for a purpose. We use them to fulfill our statutory mandate of protecting the public health and safety."

In the past week, Jaczko has been on the ropes of a political battle brewing over his management of the nation's nuclear regulator: He maintains that a complacent industry and agency need to move more quickly to ensure safety at the nation's aging nuclear plants. But his fellow commissioners on Wednesday read a litany of their perceptions of Jaczko management sins to members of a congressional committee.

Some nuclear watchers think what is playing out may be a fight for control of the NRC by pro-nuclear politicians with industry backing.

If true, then how the power struggle plays out carries implications for the oversight of the nuclear industry, public safety and, potentially, the future of the so-called Nuclear Renaissance.

Garry Morgan, of Scottsboro, Ala., lives four miles from Bellefonte Nuclear Plant site, and he believes Jaczko - the lone NRC vote against reinstating Bellefonte's construction permits - is under fire because he wants tougher nuclear regulation.

"This is a battle for control of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission originating from the nuclear industry utilizing Republican Party politicians," said Morgan, a retired U.S. Army nuclear biological and chemical warfare protection officer who has become active in the anti-nuclear movement.

"Bottom line, the NRC which is supposed to be our 'watchdog' ensuring the nuclear industry conducts their operations safely has been compromised due to the nuclear industry's financial influence over politicians attempting to control the NRC," he said. "It wasn't so long ago a Republican senator threatened to defund the NRC for doing their job."

He referred to a 1998 showdown between then GOP Sen. Pete Domenici and the then-NRC head in which Domenici threatened to slash the agency's budget unless it became friendlier to industry.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a staunch nuclear power advocate, took the same tack of most of the Republicans in the committee hearings last week: The issue is NRC's chairman, not the agency's mission.

"Some senators have said we should be talking about safety - that's what this letter [from commissioners] says. It says they're concerned about safety."

Alexander implored the NRC to fix itself and get on with business.

"I hope ... we can focus not just on lessons from Fukushima. We know what happened at Fukushima, and we know what to do about it."

What's the fuss?

Compared to other disagreements on the commission, the Bellefonte decision was a speck of dust. The real deal-breaker apparently came last summer when Jaczko declared NRC "in monitoring mode" for emergency response to Fukushima's triple meltdown. The law and policies governing the NRC make that action proper - even expected. And the move gives the chairman of the NRC more power to act singularly.

In fact, at that time other congressional hearings were in play and lawmakers were imploring swift action from the NRC. President Obama charged the agency with reporting "lessons learned" within 90 days.

But when the special task force created by the president completed its 90-day look, the four commissioners - two Republicans and two Democrats - "argued" with Jaczko that the report shouldn't be released to the American public until the commission reviewed it and possibly made changes.

Jaczko instead allowed the task force to release the document, which calls for nuclear safeguards that the nuclear industry says represent the most significant changes to nuclear-industry safety since the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania.

One Jaczko-supported task-force recommendation calls for some safety improvements to be made without first being subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Currently, a cost-protection rule essentially bars the NRC from requiring major plant improvements without first having to prove that the human-health benefits justify the cost.

Since that Fukushima report was issued, there have been increasing reports of friction at the NRC. On Oct. 13, Jaczko's four fellow commissioners wrote a letter to the White House saying that they have "grave concerns" about Jaczko and said his bullying style is creating a "chilled work environment at the NRC."

Last week the bickering went public in the congressional hearings.

Last Monday, according to The New York Times, the White House released a letter from its chief of staff, William M. Daley, to all five commissioners saying that "the chairman has committed to improve communications amongst you, including by keeping fellow commissioners better informed, and has proposed that all the commissioners meet with a trusted third party to promote better dialogue."

Whatever the outcome, how the bickering resolves could have reverberations around Chattanooga, which is edged by three operating nuclear plants and a fourth half-finished one.

TVA nuclear troubles

The year 2011 found Tennessee Valley Authority facing extra hurdles in a year when Japan's 9.0 earthquake and tsunami put all eyes on nuclear performance.

TVA's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is behind schedule and over budget, and two contract workers were indicted for falsifying safety inspection on a new reactor being built there. Meanwhile, a valve failure at Brown's Ferry Nuclear Plant pointed up so many safety problems there that the NRC put the plant under a "red" safety finding and stepped up inspections to review the plant's safety "culture." Only five red findings had been issued nationwide in the past decade.

Just Wednesday, TVA acknowledged that Sequoyah, too, has been flagged by NRC for safety concerns. In mid-November, the NRC sent TVA a letter telling utility managers that one of two reactors at Sequoyah was being moved from the "green," or safe column, to the "white" column.

NRC's reactor status matrix has four columns: green, white, yellow and red, with red being the most serious.

TVA spokesman Ray Golden said TVA is not proud of the problems.

"We are working on it," he said. "But the bottom line for the public is this: We know we operate for their trust."

He said the plants are safe and operating as they should be, "but that's not enough for us. We're routinely meeting with the NRC, and we've taken to heart what they're telling us: You don't need to just address the immediate problem, whether it's equipment-related or a human problem. What you need to address is a cultural thing to sort of kill issues dead."

The Bellefonte question

NRC granted construction permits for Bellefonte's two pressurized water reactors in 1974.

By 1988, when TVA put the plant's completion on hold and asked NRC to put it on "deferred" status, Unit 1 was about 88 percent complete, and Unit 2 was 58 percent complete.

There was no nuclear fuel on the site, which sits on 1,600 acres along the Tennessee River near Hollywood in North Alabama.

In January 2009, when Jaczko wrote a four-and-a-half page, single-spaced comment about why he opposed the Bellefonte permits reissue, he noted that TVA had informed the NRC that when TVA terminated the plant, it was no longer conducting inspections and quality assurance records-keeping there.

"Although records may remain, the NRC can no longer be assured of the quality of the equipment since the [quality assurance] program was halted. The potential that undocumented work activities, introduction of unapproved chemicals, corrosion and other unknown degradation that may have occurred calls into question the integrity and reliability of safety-related structures, systems and components," he wrote.

But Jaczko went a step further, calling for a new environmental impact statement and new public hearings.

"We set the bar basically on the ground, and now TVA is asking the NRC to lift them over it," he wrote. "By requesting reinstatement, TVA is asking the commission to allow licensees to choose when they want to comply with the rules and when they do not; and is asking the NRC to provide TVA regulatory stability while sacrificing it for others."

TVA already had spent about $4.1 billion on the plant when the utility scrapped it because it was overbudget and officials decided there was no immediate need for the additional power.

Earlier this year, when resurrecting the plant's completion plan, TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said the estimated additional cost for finishing it "is in the $4 [billion] to $5 billion range."

Sen. Alexander, in addressing the commission and congressmen last week, ticked off Bellefonte and Watts Bar reactors as part of the reason to settle NRC's "personality disorder."

"I'm deeply disturbed by this," he said. "I don't know all the answers, but I do know that we have a lot of work to do in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I was just making a short list: TVA is trying to restart the nuclear industry in Tennessee and Alabama using previously licensed reactors. In Georgia and South Carolina, new reactors are being built. There are two new designs pending before the commission. I'm hopeful that small modular reactors may be coming along in our country. ... I'd like to get back to the issues."

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